Comfrey, The Power of a Plant to Heal
Comfrey, the Power of a Plant to Heal
By Sue J Morris
Comfrey, even the name evokes a comforting feeling, is a common garden plant that has been used as an herbal medicine for thousands of years. Unsurpassed as a healing plant, comfrey promotes the rapid healing of wounds, bruises, cuts, sprains, broken bones, tendon damage and more. Its botanical name, Symphytum officinale, a name given to the plant by Dioscorides, comes from a Greek word meaning “to unite”. This plant’s capacity to unite or regenerate skin tissue, is well known. Think cracked cuticles, cracked heals, fresh scars, and wounds. The use of comfrey will be remarkably effective in helping these conditions heal quite rapidly. Comfrey helps to heal broken bones, and speedily takes the discoloration out of a black-and-blue. In poultices and salves it is used as a remedy for a multitude of hard to heal skin disorders. Used as an ingredient in salve for cosmetic purposes, comfrey aids the slowing of wrinkles, crow’s feet and aging skin. Caution should be taken when it comes to deep wounds – comfrey helps the skin to heal so quickly that the new tissue may cover a wound before deep healing occurs, causing a skin infection to brew.
A member of the Boraginaceae family, comfrey is a leafy perennial with long, hairy leaves that will cause you to itch when touched. The plant has bell-like purple flowers furling in clusters from the top of large hairy stems, and grows up to two to three feet high, flowering from early spring to summer. The roots are large and sturdy, spreading deeply and with great doggedness so as to not want to be removed from the earth once established. It will grow in sun or shade, though shade is preferable so as to not dry out the leaves in direct sunlight. It does not have a need for high quality soil. Comfrey is fast growing and a small piece of root planted in the spring will soon grow into a lovely, large plant. Comfrey produces huge amounts of leaves during the growing season. The leaves can be cut down several times during the growing season and will re-grow, making it a wonderful plant to use throughout the spring, summer and well into the fall. Extra comfrey leaves are a valuable addition to the compost pile, helping it to break down more quickly and also make a great mulch, adding nutrients to the soil. Comfrey tea makes an excellent fertilizer. Plant comfrey around your fruit trees to help their roots take up nitrogen more easily.
Looking closely at the leaf you will notice its resemblance to skin. Dig up the root and you will see anatomical shapes. Depending on the age of the plant its roots appear to looks like bones-arms, legs, pelvic bones, and dissect the root and notice its resemblance to bone marrow. The resemblance of the roots to human anatomy is fascinating. As an astrologer and herbalist, I am an advocate of the system of “The Doctrine of Signatures,” the medieval cosmology based on the concept that the inherent qualities of all things leave their mark, or “signature” on all animate and inanimate objects, in this case plants. In the case of comfrey, the leaves resemble skin and the roots resemble bones, the “signature” of the plant lets us know what its use is.
Comfrey is also rich in many crucial nutrients, such as protein, antioxidant vitamins and vitamin B12 (1). It is considered a demulcent, a substance that soothes the mucous membranes, due to its high mucilaginous content. Strong decoctions of the root or infusions of the leaf have been suggested in traditional herbal books to treat internal hemorrhage, chronic catarrh and congestion but are no longer recommended due to the high levels of pyrrolizidine alkaloids (Pas) which have been shown to be hepatotoxic.
The root is known for its glutinous and mucilaginous nature and is rich in allantoin, the compound known to promote tissue regeneration. Pharmacologically, the wound healing is attributed to allantoin, but comfrey also has pyrrolizidine alkaloids (Pas), tannins, and rosmarinic acid, a proven anti-inflammatory. Both root and leaf contain allantoin, but comfrey root contains about ten times the concentration of PAs found in the leaves. The internal use of comfrey is discouraged because of its alkaloid content according to the Physician’s Desk Reference “one should entirely forgo the internal administration of comfrey due to the presences of pyrrolizidine alkaloids which have hepatotoxic and carcinogenic effects. In other words, it is not recommended to take comfrey internally, for instance as a tea.
The very few specific reports of human toxicity related to comfrey all come from the period between 1980 and 1990, when a number of cases of veno-occiusive disease were reported. (2) However, it is important to note that in these cases, the connection with comfrey was not considered in the context of other contributing factors. For example, concomitant illness, the use of prescription or over- the-counter hepatotoxic drugs (like acetaminophen, for example), and impaired nutritional status clearly increase the likelihood that PA-containing herbs will cause hepatotoxicity. (3) I see little reason to use comfrey internally as there are many other herbs which benefit ulcers, heavy menstrual periods, diarrhea, bloody urine, or a persistent cough. Comfrey is exceptional when used externally.
According to Culpeper, the roots being outwardly applied, cure fresh wounds or cuts immediately, so powerful that if they be boiled with dissevered pieces of flesh in a pot, it will join them together again.” (5)
I have not yet boiled dissevered pieces of flesh in a pot to test this but I have seen fresh comfrey and comfrey salve heal the skin, treat wounds, remedy rashes and bruises rapidly in the 20 years that I have been making salve with it. My own personal experience using it to treat a wound, which should have required stitches, was when I accidently stabbed myself with a kitchen knife which slipped, gashing my hand below my thumb. With no desire to go to the ER and bleeding too much to drive myself there, I opted to self-treat. I ran cold water over my hand to staunch the bleeding, held the skin together with a butterfly bandage and went straight to the garden to pick some nice, large comfrey leaves. I soaked the leaf in very warm water and wrapped the moistened leaves tightly over the bandage, using the leaves as a poultice. I changed leaves 2-3 times a day for 3-4 days and was amazed to find the wound healed very nicely in a few days. I was left with virtually no scar. I shouldn’t say I was amazed. I knew comfrey was meant for wound healing, but seeing it work firsthand did amaze me nonetheless!
Over the years I have dug up roots from my 120 comfrey plants, which opportunely occupy a large embankment on my property. I have shared the roots with many people who later show me pictures of the beautiful plant a small piece of root had grown into in less than a season. I think of myself as the “Johnny Appleseed” of comfrey, spreading the root from town to town, enabling others to grow such a noble and often undervalued medicinal herb. Comfrey is often maligned for being too hardy and difficult to eradicate, but comfrey does not spread on its own. It will easily regenerate from just a small piece of root, so if you are digging it up be mindful not to drop the root just anywhere. Don’t throw it in your compost pile! Once planted it is very hardy and I often say that it will outlive the gardener once established.
I’ve been making comfrey salves for 20 years, and have had countless testimonials of the healing benefits of my salves. Grateful are those who suffer with eczema, psoriasis, and hard to heal, chronic skin conditions. As for me, I use the comfrey salve daily as my face cream, under my eyes and on all the spots that typically wrinkle as we age. My skin is soft and holding up to age very well.
1. Hills, L.D. Comfrey Past, present and future. London: Faber and Faber, 1976.
2. Stickel F, Seitz HK. The efficacy and safety of comfrey. Public Health Nutrition 2000; 3:501—8.
3. Hoffmann, David. “Is Comfrey Safe?” http://herbcraft.org/hoffmanncomfrey.html
4. Mairesse, Michelle. Health Secrets of Medicinal Herbs. Touchstone, 1981.
5. Culpeper, Nicholas. Culpeper’s Complete Herbal & English Physician. Carlisle, MA: Applewood Books, 2006. Page 93